UBC Vancouver’s snow removal team prepares for action

It’s nearly time to welcome the annual chaos, confusion, and calamitous clogging of roads known as snowfall in Vancouver.

Put away your sandals, and make sure your winter tires are installed. It’s nearly time to welcome the annual chaos, confusion, and calamitous clogging of roads known as snowfall in Vancouver.

“I don’t think it would be news to anyone if I was to say the Greater Vancouver region is just not good at snow,” said Jen Sheel, Director of Municipal Services, UBC Facilities. “Our freeze-thaw conditions make it very challenging to plan and, in Metro Vancouver, drivers are not required to use winter tires in many areas. The local municipalities see the same problems on the roads with unprepared drivers and the same complaints about road clearing and sidewalk safety.”

The main difference between UBC Vancouver and local municipalities is the scope of work, says Sheel.

“In all other municipalities, residents and businesses are required to clear their respective sidewalks while the municipality focuses on clearing arterial roads,” she says. “But at UBC, our small crew is responsible for clearing the entire campus.”

Preparations for snow on UBC’s Vancouver campus are already well underway.

Starting in late October, UBC’s Municipal Services crew starts switching over leaf collection and removal attachments on its fleet of vehicles in exchange for salting, plowing, and brining gear. The team lead for snow is the Streets and Operations Support (SOS) group, which clears all campus roads, building pathways and accessibility routes, and afterhours response. The team receives support from Soft Landscape, Waste Management, and Custodial Services, which are responsible for clearing building entrances.

In total, Municipal Services has 26 vehicles to deploy during snowfall. These include everything from dump trucks to snow blowers. UBC stores more than 160 tonnes of road salt, 80 tonnes of salt/sand combo, 80 tonnes of sand, 500 bags of de-icing salt, four pallets of ice-melter, 432 ice melt shaker cans and two tanks of brine. Supplies are refilled as needed and depending on supplier availability.

Snow days for Municipal Services start at 4 a.m. (sometimes earlier) when the manager of SOS gets the latest localized forecast, and then checks in with the crew head on the ground for the most up to date list of issues.

By 5 a.m., the Lead Assessment Group (LAG) conference call begins. Sheel, along with with representatives from the Provost Office, Office of the Vice-President, Students, Associate Vice-President, Facilities, Registrar, Campus Security, Housing, and Media Relations convene to discuss the forecast and determine if the weather conditions warrant curtailing or suspending in-person classes activities that day. Factors that are considered include the current and future road conditions as well as information provided by TransLink regarding impacts on transit service to campus.

“Those LAG discussions are lively despite the early hour,” says Sheel. “There’s a lot at stake for students and employees if we’re telling them not to come to campus, especially when exams are in progress. We don’t always agree 100 per cent, but ultimately, under the Extreme Environmental Conditions Policy, it’s the Provost Office that makes the final call after considering all the information. From that point, it’s up to individual faculty members to decide if they’re going to shift class online, postpone or cancel.”

The Provost Office’s decision is announced on ubc.ca and shared through the university’s social media channels by 6 a.m., and updated throughout the day as needed.

Meanwhile, clearing efforts have been ongoing for hours as the university never closes.

“When we anticipate that there might be a major snow event coming, or we’re in the middle of one, we offer to put up crew members at West Coast Suites so they can start their 3 a.m. shift without having to worry about commuting to campus in challenging conditions,” says Sheel. “Sometimes, staff will stay on campus for days just to get the job done. We have the resources, and great people, and we prioritize what needs to be cleared first.”

snow clearing,vancouver snow,snow plow
Map of priority areas for ice prevention and snow removal

The first priority includes emergency response routes, public transit routes, primary roads and sidewalks, and major pathways and access to critical services. This includes access routes to emergency services, such as the UBC Hospital and roads required by first responders, including RCMP, fire, and ambulance.

Other high priority snow-clearing areas include animal care facilities, areas of refuge, such as Koerner Library and the AMS Nest, transit hubs and bus stops, childcare facilities, and emergency and extreme weather response operations, such as the water pump station, Campus Energy Centre, Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility, Campus and Community Planning, the Life Building, Campus Security, and South Campus works yard access roads.

The second priority includes access to academic buildings; main and accessible entrances with connecting pathways, and emergency exits; and access to student housing and student services.

The third priority includes access to back of house areas, where loading, receiving, waste and other services take place, along with secondary roads, sidewalks and pathways, and select roads within UNA neighbourhood areas.

Finally, the fourth priority includes other building entrances, tertiary pathways, and special event needs.

“We know expectations are high, but our first priority is safety,” says Sheel. “This means we don’t try and remove every single flake of snow, but we do make it safer to drive and walk on campus. Our combined team of over 300 people covers a massive area of four square kilometres, with over 17,000 staff on site, over 58,000 students on site, 211 buildings, 13 student residences, and 106 retail outlets in our jurisdiction.”

Read more about snow and ice prevention at UBC Vancouver here: https://facilities.ubc.ca/services/ice-prevention-and-snow-removal/